Menu Contact/Location

New ‘Then and Now’ book is less nostalgic than predecessor

By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, July 22, 2004

America loves a good makeover, which may help explain the fascination with “Then and Now” books documenting changes in cities over time.

Of course, not all of the makeovers in these books are good ones, and that is especially true of “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” published in 1990 by and still available from the University of Pittsburgh Press ($39.95).

The late Chatham College history professor Arthur G. Smith was the author of that volume; he also shot the “now” photographs between 1986 and 1989. The majority of the “then” pictures — 87 of them — were taken between 1920 and 1939, with another 48 shot before 1910. The work of some of the city’s best-known photographers is in the book, including Luke Swank, Clyde Hare and Harold Corsini.

While Smith’s book chronicles positive evolution, it focuses heavily on change for the worse, from the massive 1960s urban renewal in East Liberty and the North Side to the prevailing ugliness that set in after hundreds of elegant little frame houses lost their original details to casement windows and siding that, in some neighborhoods, seems to grow grimmer and grimier each year.

The transformations in Walter Kidney’s new book, also called “Pittsburgh Then and Now,” are not, on the other hand, lamentations for Lost Pittsburgh.

“I had no feeling of nostalgia to impart,” said Kidney, historian for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “But there were interesting things I wanted to convey, like ‘the Combine’ ” — a nickname for the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Co., about 100 businesses engaged in the shipping of coal around the turn of the 20th century. It owned a now-demolished cast-iron-front building on Water Street, now Fort Pitt Boulevard.

The captions are a little more substantial than those in Smith’s book. Kidney wrote all of the “then” captions, with other PHLF staffers helping out with the “nows.” In the new book, the contemporary photos, shot by London freelancer Simon Clay, are in color, while all of the photos in the Smith book are black and white. But the earlier volume is more comprehensive and more than twice the size of Kidney’s book — 325 pages compared with 144.

The new book, which retails for $17.98, is part of a series of 28 “Then and Now” books published by San Diego-based Thunder Bay Press.

Fourteen years after Smith’s book came out, its comparisons, especially in the neighborhoods, still have the power to shock and dismay. There are few such moments in Kidney’s book, in part because it often focuses on more familiar and less radically overhauled sites and because much of the evolution is positive.

What may come as a surprise, for those who think nothing ever changes here in the capital of Appalachia, is that so much has since the late 1980s, for better and worse, large and small. Gone are the Lawrence Paint Building, the East Liberty Sears, the South Hills trolleys, the cobblestones on Smallman Street and the soot on Carnegie Institute. The North Shore and large swaths of the South Side have been made over. Stadiums and convention centers have gone and come.

The Smith book is not so much outdated as it is a valuable record of the city at a point in time, as Kidney’s book no doubt will seem in years to come. The new “Then and Now” complements the older one, but it in no way replaces it.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633